Seals and Sealings

More than 7,500 Minoan seals and ancient seal impressions are known today. This number is estimated to represent only 5% of the original output and attests to the significance of these objects in Minoan society. Seals served functions at multiple societal levels, starting from the personal one and reaching that of state administration. They were used in everyday life as means of securing from unauthorised access, as instruments of identification and substantiation but also as status symbols, charms and jewellery. For the modern researcher, the seal faces of Minoan seals constitute the richest source of Minoan iconography and provide a unique dataset of images of life in Minoan times and Minoan cognition. Due to the diverse roles seals played in Minoan society they constitute a potent piece of evidence in the quest to answer questions pertinent to Minoan administration, the function of the Minoan ‘palaces’, social relationships, movements in space, the cultural/political geography of Minoan Crete but also the personal beliefs of the Minoan individual.

Nine seals have so far been discovered on the Kephali at Sissi. Eight were recovered from the settlement and one comes from a grave in the cemetery. The earliest seal from Kephali is a two-sided disc which dates to the end of the Prepalatial/start of the Protopalatial period whereas a Protopalatial signet from the cemetery is chronologically next. The remaining pieces are Neopalatial lentoids.

The recovery of seals at Sissi provides the opportunity to address a number of questions pertaining to life in Minoan times. Depending on whether future explorations of the site will produce more Protopalatial seals, the issue of the relationship of Sissi with the important Protopalatial town of Malia can be addressed on the basis of the glyptic evidence. Since Malia was the most important production centre of the Protopalatial Malia/Eastern Crete Steatite Group, which is also commonly represented by seals on sites around the town and the Lasithi Plateau, the recovery of more Protopalatial seals from Sissi can provide important insights on the character of the relationship between the two neighboring sites. The Neopalatial seals of Sissi may provide evidence related to Late Minoan patterns of seal consumption and also the significance of seals for the inhabitants of the site. There is evidence, for example, that the four lentoids from Building CD were produced in a single workshop; this would suggest that there was a preference among the occupants of the Neopalatial building for one source of seal production. The recovery of two of these seals, which must have been used by the Neopalatial occupants of the building, in LM III contexts suggests a conscious (the seals were heirlooms) or unconscious (the seals were chance finds in LM III) connection of the latest occupants of the building with the past. The question of whether LM III seals were consumed at the site can only be addressed once excavation of the LM III layers is completed.  More general issues, such as the subject of the relationship of Sissi with Malia in the Late Minoan period may also be addressed on the basis of the glyptic evidence after the completion of the explorations on the site.



Seal 11-03-0603-OB001: Seal face, impression, drawing
(Seal face, impression: Chronis Papanikolopoulos. Drawing: Maria Anastasiadou; © Sissi Project)



The presence of a court-centered building in Sissi also opens the possibility that this complex was administrative operational but there is, at the moment, no certain evidence for sealing administration. Future excavations may again add more evidence regarding this.

Documentation: The seal specialist’s goal is to define the ‘character’ of each seal so that the piece, its relationship with the remaining seal corpus and, subsequently, its place within the specific setting in which it was recovered maybe understood. The character of each piece, which can be referred to as its style, is a result of the combination of material, shape, technical execution, engraving style and imagery. Following the example set by the CMS (Marburg, Heidelberg), the seal face and profile of the object are documented through close-up photography, which aims to demonstrate the object’s qualities and allow its stylistic appreciation. However, even with the use of macro photography there are important hindrances to the unimpeded appreciation of the seal face’s imagery and engraving style which are the most important traits of each seal. These hindrances are the small size of Minoan seals, which have seal faces with an average diameter/length of 1-2 cm; the texture and colour of the material which are not always uniform; and the fact that the motifs are engraved in negative which does not allow instant recognition of details by the human eye. These obstacles in appreciating the seal face imagery are overcome by the creation of impressions/casts in which the engraved motifs can be seen in relief. In the relief of the seal impression, the imagery of the seal face and its engraving style can be made out clearly and consequently, defined with accuracy. A further step in the documentation of the seal face is the preparation of pencil drawings which employ fine shading in order to reproduce the seal impression with precision. The drawings render not only the imagery but also the engraving style and function as a ‘guide’ to the unspecialized eye for understanding what is depicted on the seal face. The process of taking impressions from seal faces in order to make their motifs better visible can be likened to the process of developing photographs in film photography:  The negative (seal face, film) is inverted into positive (impressions, photographs) to make the images  better visible to the human eye.

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Dr. Maria Anastasiadou
University of Heidelberg